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The Expert Working Group would like to acknowledge the contribution of the following:
Associate Professor Bob Boughton from the University of New England assisted by providing information related to approaches to adult education; Professor Phil Winne, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada provided information about his research development of Learning Kits; Professor Jason Mattingley and Dr Bruno van Swinderen, Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland provided information on mechanisms of attention; Ms Suzanne Northcott and Ms Katherine Vickers from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations provided information on current government programs.
© Commonwealth of Australia 2009
A report for the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC)
This report has been prepared by the independent PMSEIC Expert Working Group on Transforming Learning and the Transmission of Knowledge. The views expressed in this report are those of the Expert Working Group and not necessarily those of the Australian Government.
Table of Contents
Foreword from the Chair v
Executive Summary and recommendations 1
1. Introduction 5
2. The Science of Learning Processes 9
2.1 Learning 9
2.1.1 The neuronal level 9
2.1.2 Information processing 11
2.2 Development 14
2.2.1 Brain structures and processes 15
2.2.2 Learning mechanisms 18
2.2.3 Attention 18
2.2.4 Memory 18
2.2.5 Knowledge 19
2.2.6 Motivation 20
2.2.7 The environment 21
3. Science of Learning - Practice and Environments 23
3.1 Formal environments 23
3.1.1 Framework 23
3.1.2 The learner 26
3.1.3 The professional educator 26
3.2 Lifelong Learning 29
3.3 Environmental influences 30
3.3.1 Social and health 30
3.3.2 Technology 33
4. Learning in the Future 37
4.1 Science of learning in the future 38
4.2 The brain in the future – the neuroenhancement debate 40
4.3 Educators in the future 40
4.3.1 Teachers learning from research - from best evidence to best practice 41
4.3.2 Pedagogic change – challenges in the future 41
4.4 Students in the future 42
4.4.1 Learning will be personalised 42
4.4.2 Moving beyond the current assessment paradigm 42
4.5 Improving equity in learning outcomes 43
4.6 Learning environments in the future 44
4.6.1 Fostering a culture of learning 44
4.6.2 Electronic learning resources 44
5. Conclusion 47
Appendix A Expert Working Group Members
Appendix B Glossary
Appendix C References
Appendix D Detailed technical information
Appendix E Factors that influence learning
Foreword from the Chair
Now is an exciting time to be addressing the issue of transforming learning and the transfer of knowledge due to the many recent breakthroughs in our understanding of the fundamental science of learning, and the ever increasing need to better equip both our young and lifelong learners to address the increasing complexity of a world requiring innovative solutions.
The Transforming Learning and the Transmission of Knowledge Expert Working Group comprised a multidisciplinary group of researchers and educators, creating a powerful intellectual dynamic to address the complexities of learning and learners. As the least expert of this group of experts, it was interesting to watch the group veer away from questions around technology and the massive amount of information available via the internet, to focus on fundamental questions that influence our ability to learn. The multidisciplinary approach, and the involvement of both researchers and practitioners, proposed many innovative solutions that in themselves demonstrated the potential of bringing together such groups to address the science of learning in a more structured and sustained program.
The Expert Working Group came together for only two months, a much shorter time than is usual for PMSEIC working groups, and had, therefore, to limit the scope of what could be covered in that time.
In particular, we recognised the importance of, but were unable to cover in depth, a number of areas including:
We were, or became, aware of many important and outstanding examples of programs to enhance learning, support teachers and promote learning being conducted by Departments of Education, researchers and other educational groups across Australia, but had insufficient time to complete a full evaluation or stock take of these.
Finally, the practitioners in our group frequently drew us back to the realities of classrooms, the need to address some of the most basic requirements of education (e.g. the lack of trained teachers and even chairs in classrooms in some remote communities), and the need to value and support the teachers who are central to all aspects of formal learning.
I commend this report to the Prime Minister, Cabinet, the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) and the wider Australian community, and in so doing, thank the Expert Working Group for the quality and intensity of their efforts of the past two months.
Chair, PMSEIC Expert Working Group on Transforming Learning and the Transmission of Knowledge
Executive Summary and recommendations
Australia’s opportunity to transform learning
Australia is at an exciting point in its history as it develops a knowledge-based learning society. Breakthroughs in our understanding of the fundamental science of learning, encompassing the scientific understanding of how our brains function, our motivations and the practice of teaching, are at a stage at which linking research and practice has the potential to transform how each one of us acquires and retains knowledge throughout our lives.
The outcome of embracing this opportunity at this potent time will be a resilient and adaptive nation, prepared to meet the challenges and opportunities of the future.
Example breakthroughs include understanding the influence of the brain’s attention and memory forming processes on learning effectiveness. These can be influenced by personal strategies and instructional design, yielding potential for improving learning capacity. Motivational states which can be adapted also affect learning effectiveness. One such example is the motivational impact of the community and cultural value of learning. By encouraging a culture that supports the value of learning, Australia would increase individual motivation for learning, enhancing each person’s capacity for attaining and retaining knowledge.
Australia faces numerous challenges and opportunities that can be met through the development and support of a highly effective and inclusive learning society, including:
By building on our current advantages in the area of understanding learning, we can work toward a society capable of meeting the complex challenges facing Australia and other nations, and benefit from the opportunities they present.
The opportunity is now
Now is the time to act. Australia can build on its prominence in neuroscience, breakthroughs in the science of learning, and our experience in managing multi-functional teams to create an inclusive learning society and reap the attendant benefits. With opportunities presented by our proximity and collaboration with countries in the growing Asia–Pacific economy, Australia could maximise these benefits both domestically and through export markets. Action now will help to place Australia in a world-class position in the near future.
Realising these potential benefits will require researchers from the sciences of learning to work with teaching and training practitioners to develop, disseminate and apply evidence-based learning innovations. For all Australians to benefit from this innovative approach will require:
Australia has a history of significant advantages on which to build such an approach:
This report outlines the current understanding of the science of how people acquire knowledge throughout their lives, identifies potential barriers to knowledge acquisition for all Australians, and presents options for Government consideration that will transform the future of learning in Australia.
New knowledge about the brain, cognitive processing and human motivation applied to the subject of how we learn has the potential to drive transformational changes in teaching and learning.
Examples of research advances in these areas include:
Practice and research evidence, however, are frequently disconnected. Innovations are built on the basis of speculation and not properly assessed, and new knowledge with direct implications for practice is often not disseminated to, or applied by, practitioners.
In order to address this, a unified effort by practitioners and researchers that advance our knowledge of what education practices work best, underpinned with solid evidence of why they work, should be initiated. Teaching and training practitioners from all areas need to be included in the choice of research direction, and in the application of research outcomes. Practitioner representation should not be constrained to those in formal education settings, but should include a strong representation from formal teachers, parents, industry trainers and coaches, aged carers, community teachers and others.
Learning environments have a significant impact on the effectiveness of learning. Factors such as cultural environment, health, social and physical infrastructure, social skills and family pressure, all aid and/or hinder our ability to learn. These factors are particularly relevant in groups such as disadvantaged youth, Indigenous students and immigrants. Enhanced collaboration between researchers studying the science of learning and practitioners is expected to lead to new ways of addressing persistent educational issues for these groups. This will be achieved through better understanding how environmental factors and disadvantage impact on learning processes to modify or amplify the development of knowledge and skills.
The overall culture and value of learning and teaching also has a significant impact on learning uptake and effectiveness. This can be enhanced by embedding the excitement and value of learning and teaching into the Australian identity.
The role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in learning, both formally and informally, is likely to grow and yet in many cases its effectiveness in enhancing learning is unknown. In addition, variability exists in teachers’ familiarity with, and confident use of, ICT resources. Programs to study the effectiveness of existing and new initiatives, along with access to professional development for all teachers in this area, should be initiated in order to address this challenge.
The outcome of these actions will be a smarter, more adaptive and resilient Australia.
Urgent challenges exist to ensuring that all Australians are given the opportunity to learn and reach their intellectual potential. Ignoring these will limit Australia’s capacity to contribute in a major way to the global knowledge economy.
The Expert Working Group recommends a number of transformational programs be immediately initiated and evaluated, extending from supporting fundamental research into the science of learning and its application to knowledge transmission, through to providing equal opportunity in and access to education in remote locations, valuing teachers and supporting teachers in their use of digital technology.
In order to ensure that all Australians are prepared for the future knowledge economy and rapidly increasing complexity of knowledge, we should research, and apply, transformational breakthroughs in the science of learning to develop a resilient and adaptive nation.
The Expert Working Group recommends the establishment of a Science of Learning Program, delivered through a number of interdisciplinary, inter-professional Science of Learning Centres.
These centres would integrate disciplines such as cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology, social science and education, ensure the active inclusion of teaching and training practitioners in setting the research direction, and disseminate and optimally apply research findings. The research would address practical problems that hinder learning, from the basic science of optimising learning through to tackling issues relating to Indigenous learners, learners in regional and remote locations, and learners from underprivileged backgrounds.
The following focus areas for Centres are recommended as a first step:
In some remote Australian communities, school students do not have access to full-time, qualified teachers and adequate resources and facilities (Calma, 2009; Hughes, 2008). Such fundamental deficiencies diminish or prevent positive learning outcomes and reduce the likelihood that students will attend school, let alone finish school and progress to further education.
The Expert Working Group recommends that Australia ensures that all students in remote locations have access to full-time, trained and qualified teachers and quality learning environments.
The science of learning tells us that many factors affect an individual’s capacity and motivation for learning. These include the social and cultural views of learning in family and community. By creating a national culture supporting the value of learning for all ages, genders and cultures, Australia would increase individual motivation for learning, and enhance each person’s capacity for attaining and retaining knowledge.
The Expert Working Group recommends the introduction of a campaign that embeds the excitement of learning, and the value and benefits of acquiring and sharing knowledge, as integral parts of a modern Australian identity.
This campaign would address the need for learning, not merely as a tool for career preparation and progression, but also as a means to become more resilient and adaptable to the changes expected in an increasingly complex world. The program would use science of learning research to inject excitement into the perception of learning. It would debunk ‘brain myths’, such as the belief that more mature individuals no longer generate new nerve cells in the brain and have reduced capacity for learning, or the belief that we only use 10% of our brain capacity. It would instead be based on the latest research from the emerging field of the science of learning.
Studies have shown that outside the students themselves, excellent teaching is the single most powerful influence on student achievement (Hattie, 2003). This importance has not always been clearly articulated to the community, and over recent decades teaching has become a career path that is neither well respected nor well remunerated. In order to maximise their impact, teachers need to have high levels of knowledge in the areas they teach, be at the forefront of research into how to teach, as well as maintain high levels of commitment and emotional engagement.
The Expert Working Group recommends the introduction of a campaign to enhance the status and esteem society holds for its teachers. In addition, it is recommended that remuneration and support for their continuous professional development in both pedagogy and discipline studies would reflect the central importance of teaching in learning and learning in teaching.
This would complement the campaign outlined in Recommendation 3. In order to become a society that values learning and knowledge, we need to be a society that values and supports the role of teachers and professional educators in preparing every individual to participate in society.
Digital technology adds a new dimension to the learning landscape. The role of ICT in learning, and the number and diversity of technological platforms and applications, is broad and will continue to expand. Currently, the effectiveness of many of these is unknown.
The Expert Working Group recommends a rigorous evaluation of the many widespread applications of digital technology currently employed in learning settings.
This would include applications within a number of sectors such as medicine (for educating patient groups), and commercial computing (such as flight simulation), distance education learning management platforms and the use of open source software to create learning commons. It would enable evidence-based decisions on which are best suited to enhancing learning for all.
Studies identify that teachers have several concerns regarding their knowledge and skills to integrate ICT into the curriculum (Hew and Brush, 2007). Considerable variability exists in teachers’ familiarity with, and use of, the resources and in their access to professional development in this area (Freebody et al, 2008a).
The Expert Working Group recommends that additional teacher professional development programs be implemented in order to develop the understanding and skills required for the more effective pedagogical integration of digital forms of learning into curricula planning and presentation for teachers, other learning practitioners and students.
In Powering Ideas – An Innovation Agenda for the 21st Century, the Australian Government proposed that the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) adopt a foresight role, scanning the horizon to identify emerging trends over the forthcoming 20-50 years. PMSEIC has implemented this initiative, commissioning several ‘foresight clusters’ to identify future challenges and opportunities, with Expert Working Groups established to undertake more detailed studies of the identified trends.
The emergence of changing requirements for a skilled workforce was identified as a future challenge and it was proposed that an investigation be undertaken into the potential means of improving the efficacy, efficiency and equitability of learning. This report represents the first detailed Expert Working Group output from the PMSEIC Foresight initiative.
The growing complexity of modern society demands that individuals have ever-increasing knowledge and expertise in order to function as effective members of society. In the past, it was common for students to leave formal education at a relatively young age to enter the workforce, and from there to progress to higher positions by gaining experience and skills through their on-the-job activities.
Presently, the increasing sophistication of equipment and skills that have driven Australia’s productivity growth over recent decades has meant that many unskilled and semi-skilled positions have evaporated. This has resulted in higher barriers to workforce entry, and workers entering the workforce today necessarily respond by increasing their years of formal study. Almost 90% of all jobs now require some form of post-school qualification, yet at least half of those in the workforce do not have these qualifications, or have not even completed secondary schooling (Richardson and Tan, 2007). These changes in the workforce will pose a significant challenge to Australia in the coming decades, but preparing approaches to address this now will enhance our ability to thrive.
This report aims to provide options that will ensure that all members of Australian society can acquire the knowledge they need to thrive more rapidly than in the past, even as information continues to expand at an ever-growing pace.
In the future Australians will need greater technical, social and cultural skills and knowledge, as well as greater personal and interpersonal capabilities, to adapt to changing circumstances. Current practice for learning and knowledge transmission, in an environment of rapidly growing knowledge volume and complexity, will not be adequate to prepare us for this future. This report suggests new, continuously-improving approaches, based on advances in our understanding of the science of learning, to assist the development and maintenance of learning skills for the entire community.
Significant advances have recently been made in our understanding of the psychology of learning, as well as the neuroscience underpinning the mechanisms for learning. Now is the time to utilise these advances. By integrating the appropriate research disciplines, experts and practitioners, we can draw this learning together to drive transformational changes in teaching and learning. Implementation of such advances must be accelerated.
Improved understanding of how people learn can be used to optimise learning environments and methods, maximising the transmission of knowledge. In addition, understanding the brain’s management of new challenges will help inform the teaching of problem solving skills. This will be crucial to support Australia’s population as it faces increasingly complex challenges in the future.
All human beings learn throughout their lives, with much of this taking place in informal environments before, during and after formal education. Life long learning, especially informal learning, needs to be recognised and nourished to support the goal of a happy, productive and knowledgeable society.
The intention of this report is to:
Terms of Reference
The Expert Working Group met between early September and mid-November 2009 to prepare the report and a presentation to PMSEIC focusing on transforming learning and the transmission of knowledge.
With a planning horizon of 20 years, the terms of reference were:
1. Identify state-of-the-art understanding of how people acquire knowledge throughout life, in the context of the rapidly developing knowledge base.
2. Identify potential barriers to knowledge acquisition, including environmental factors, and outline the supporting published evidence.
3. Identify and examine Australian and international key case studies to determine the most effective approaches to the acquisition of knowledge.
4. Formulate options for Government consideration that could have a positive transformational impact on the acquisition of knowledge across the full spectrum of socioeconomic environments, including Indigenous, rural and urban Australia.
5. Document the relative contributions of fundamental and applied published research to the findings and identify any key areas for future research.
The Expert Working Group was chaired by a member of the PMSEIC Standing Committee and included members with expertise in:
A list of members of the Expert Working Group is provided at Appendix A.